New vs. Established Agents

Many of you know that I’m still relatively new to this whole agenting thing. In fact, last month I hit my one-year anniversary of being in the business (although I’d received an MA in Writing and been involved in the SCBWI before that), and next month I’ll hit one year since my first sale. After that, the milestones get a lot more boring: one year since my first conference, one year since that time I fell asleep and missed my stop on the subway, one year since writing this post about one-year anniversaries…

But I digress. A question that used to come up a lot when I would offer representation was, “Why should I go with a young and unproven agent?” Even though I’m not as green as I once was, the unproven vs. established agent question is one that writers should consider very carefully when sending out their precious babies.

Established agents have many distinct advantages over new agents—they have more connections, often have proven track records, and just have more experience in general. Their clients likely won’t have questions that they’ve never had to answer before. If they’ve been at it for ten or more years, chances are there’s a reason for their success and why they have lots and lots of sales.

Newer agents, on the other hand, are a bit more of a wildcard. Maybe they don’t have the right connections. Maybe they’re not savvy about what books can sell, or how to get your book to the next level. So why would anyone ever want to sign with one, anyway?

Well, the one distinct advantage a new agent usually has over a seasoned vet is time. It just stands to reason that with fewer clients to work with, a new agent will be able to focus more of his or her time on YOU and YOUR book. If they offer representation, it’s because they’re really excited about your work. Chances are, they’ll fight really hard to see it published. That’s not to say an established agent won’t, but, as with families who have one or two children vs. those crazy houses (my apologies if you’re from one of them) with 14 kids running around, the focus tends to be more spread out. The parent of a single child has eyes only for little Ricky or Cory. In the same way, a newer agent may be able to invest more time in shaping a manuscript into something that can sell.

While this is certainly not always the case, a lot of times newer agents are more plugged into technology like Twitter, Facebook, or even blogs. They’re out there for writers, because in many cases they have to be in order to make themselves known. Newer agents are also more likely to form relationships with newer editors, who are just as hungry to discover great projects and spend time shaping them.

Of course, a new agent could burn out in eight months and never be heard from again. He could finally score that record deal he’s been working toward, or maybe that line of clothing he’s been developing just got picked up by Calvin Klein. With an established agent, you usually have the confidence that they’re going to stick around for a while, even if you’re not always on the top of their to-do list.

So what says you? What is or was more important to you in your own agent search?

  1. Nice post Chris. Thank you!

    I’ve been searching for representation for several months. Now to be honest, I began my search before I was ready. Being a newbie, I had no idea what I was doing and jumped on the ‘I have to get this published’ bandwagon with ferocity. After several rejections, and joining a writing group, I realized that my manuscript wasn’t even close to being ready for representation. (Insert sigh and a few weeks of depression.)

    After picking myself up, dusting off, and major revisions, I began searching again. This time with more clarity. Personally, I’d rather have a newer agent. I want someone that has time for me. I want someone who still has passion for what they do. My over-active imagination leads me to think that someone who has been in the business for twenty years has probably seen thousands of perfect, brilliant manuscripts. That being the case, why would they want to take time with someone who was close to getting it right, but not quite there? Working with new writers is not easy money. It’s work! (Insert another sigh for the poor daring agent.)

    In my opinion, a new agent and a new writer are a perfect combination.


  2. That’s an interesting question and one I hadn’t considered yet. Thus far, I have focused my search for an agent on criteria that is important to me when considering putting my work in the hands of someone else. Criteria including: Does the agent’s love of books scream out from their website/blogs/tweets? Is the agent interested in/representing the types of stories I’m writing? Based on what I’ve read of his/her postings, does the agent appear to love what they do, and do I think I would gel with this person? This is very important, as I need to get along and trust an agent for my entire writing career, not just one book.

    I think I haven’t considered the new vs. established criteria in my search because I, too, am new and could be considered a risk for an agent. I could be good for one book and then my show idea, The Husband Whisperer, will be picked up on TLC and become a huge international phenomenon. Until that time, I will continue writing my stories and searching for the right agent.

    Chris, good luck with your search for the right writers; it sounds as though you’ve had a good first year.


  3. I never really thought about it either. I just assumed that although an agent is new, they still had a few years of experience under their belt by being interns.
    That and the fact that I look for what interests the agent and not how long they have been there.
    And then there is the other fact that I am new too, so what right do I have to be picky? None really. I would be more than willing to work with a new agent, especially if they were willing to work with me. Not only that, but I think if a new author works with a new agent then they could grow together, establishing a great working relationship that would last for years to come. 🙂

    Grats on your first year, and I hope many years follow.


  4. Having been down the agent road, my criteria is changing. I’ve stopped looking for the “big name” (long-established) agent and now keep an eye out for the newcomer with the right connections — whether that’s an existing sales record or a partnership with a long-established agent — and an honest enthusiasm for the business. The willingness to take time to build a writer’s career is exceedingly important to me now. I don’t know that I gave it much thought in the past, but it’s become if not my number one criteria as I research agents, at least in the top three.


  5. We all start somewhere, right? I’m looking for an agent who is just as passionate about my work as I am. If that is a newbie, great. If it’s not, that’s also great. When I hire reporters, I’m looking for passion. I would much rather have an employee who might not know as much but is passionate about what they do, wants to learn all they can, has a terrific attitude etc. My job as a newspaper editor is to help my editors and copy editors and reporters and designers do their best work of their lives. That’s my promise to them. And they know that I will go to the ends of the earth to make this happen. I always tell them that if they want to do mediocre work, I’m not the boss for them because I’m simply not interested in mediocre. What I seek in an agent is this. Help me do the best work of my life and get it into the hands of those who will enjoy it. There are times when passion is the only thing pulling us through. But often it’s the very thing that leads to success. That and tenacity and hope that someone somewhere will give you a chance. I can’t imagine where I’d be if someone long ago hadn’t given me a chance to prove myself in journalism. Does this make sense?


  6. I’ve thought about this a lot, and as you say, there are pros and cons both ways. What matters most for me is that the agent loves my work and is passionate about getting it out there. The agent’s personality is another thing I consider. In the publishing business, and in life, I think a sense of humor is essential. Open communication is important too. 🙂


  7. This is something I have seriously considered as I continue my search for representation. At first, I thought an agent who had a mountain of past success residing on his shoulders was the way to go. I never really thought about the fact that the mountain may have caused some serious back problems over time, resulting in the loss of feeling in certain anatomical essentials, including the heart. All I thought about was the fact that said “mountainously successful” agent reps Author A, Author B, and Author C, and they all write and sell great books similar to mine. I need to be Author D!

    But then I began to consider my situation and transferred to an agent. What I mean is, I am just starting out and have a middle grade manuscript I feel can be very successful. Like I said, though, I am a newbie in the game and I know it is tough to get “in.” This makes me work that much harder, makes me revise/polish that much more, and makes me strive to keep writing with even more conviction. As it appears you are, Chris, I am a born worker. Don’t know any other way to be. So I began to think of what I would be like as a new agent, and I realized I would be dying to find that diamond in the rough (or that diamond in the slush). I’d champion that diamond and try to parlay that to future diamonds. This is when I realized that new agents, given some signs that they are hungry (good interviews, a few deals in my genre, web/blog presence), may be better for me in my current newbie form. So, your post makes sense to me and I have been leaning towards new agents, hungry agents, for the last few weeks. I am willing to believe in them…just waiting for them to believe in me.

    Here is my question for you, Chris. Consider your question, reverse the subjects, and: Given that you are a new agent, do you find yourself looking for established writers to represent, OR are you looking to find those “diamonds in the slush” in hopes of building your own collection? What says you?


  8. I agree that a lot of the newer agents are plugged into technology like Twitter, blogs, etc., and to be honest it’s always surprising (in a good way) to hear that an agent I’m following on Twitter just signed their first client or sold their first book. Usually I’ve read these agents’ blogs or tweet tips and despite being new they have a great deal of experience and expertise behind them, so I definitely would not see their newness as a strike against them. If anything, I’d be excited at the possibility of being one of their first clients, and growing our careers together like another poster said.

    How long someone’s been an agent isn’t as important to me as their personality, their enthusiasm for my work, whether or not we’re on the same page on where it’s headed and also how well we communicate.


  9. I’m just getting ready to start my agent search.

    I agree with Keely on the website screaming that the agent loves books. The thing I love about the Upstart Crow site, in fact, is that it feels like the home of folks who love books. The name of the agency is wonderful, and the site is perfect!

    Everything about this site says that the agents here are into art and excellence and that they are willing to take chances and to work hard and produce something of quality.

    I’m excited to see what you all are doing and I expect to see great books coming out of this agency.


  10. Some great responses in here! Thanks to all the commenters so far, especially those with the kind words for our new home!

    It’s great to hear a lot of you are thinking seriously about what you want in an agent. I say to writers all the time that they have to be open to many different options for representation. Another key fact to remember is that just because someone may offer on your work doesn’t mean they’re the BEST person for your work. I’m sure there are writers out there with great books who wouldn’t be the best fit for me to work with. Make sure you match across the board and you’ll be happier longer.

    Mr. Twilley: The first three projects I sold were all debut authors, and I’d love to continue working with new writers to help them build their careers. Of course, if Stephen King decided he needed representation for his new children’s book, I certainly would at least CONSIDER it 🙂


  11. New agencies not only have that hunger to find great work and promote their authors, they also have the enthusiasm any new business owner brings to the table. Even when you love your job, after 20 years of doing it, do you still bring the same joy and eagerness to it you did when you first started out? Usually not. A new agent rides the high … Read Morethat serves as a springboard, and that rubs off to the editors they connect with and the writers they represent.

    When looking at new agents, I pay special attention to their presentation of themselves. Is their website professional looking and high tech? What do their blogs or conference panel participations tell you about their personality? If a new agent comes across as smart and savvy and eager to work with writers, plus has a background that compliments the publishing industry in some way, I consider them a great opportunity.


  12. I just found this blog yesterday and LOVE it!

    Thanks for speaking so openly about this. Personally, I’d be thrilled to have a “newbie” agent. As a teacher, I know that first-years always have that thirst to prove themselves. I’ve heard many agents with years under their belts say that young agents are perfect for just the reasons you stated: they are willing to bust their butts to make a sale.


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  14. Great post. I am a big fan of openness and transparency — you know what you get.
    I am finishing the draft on my second book in the next month and know one agent I would be honored to send my manuscript to.



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  16. I personally have no problem being represented by a newbie agent. Who’s going to work harder to get the book published than someone trying to make a name for themself? My MS is on its way!


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